The Dunning-Kruger effect – does it work for emotions too?

As part of my research into the latest novel, I stumbled upon this absolute gem of a study. It has seriously made my week. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of already knowing this, the paper they did is titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999). Basically, if you’re really dumb, you will never realise it. In fact, you’ll honestly believe that you’re actually very smart and are exceptionally good at lots of things. You won’t doubt your own abilities or understanding of anything, because you’ll know better than everyone else.

It explains so much of the world. I’m sure everyone can think of people they’ve met who baffle you with their confident assertions of ridiculousness until you start doubting yourself. I have a particular person I know, who without naming names or identifying them in any way, leaves me almost speechless on a regular basis. Things so obviously false are said with such utter certainty that you have to stop and do an internal check and a quick summation of proof for your own interpretation of reality before you can respond. But part of the problem is also that if you’re unaware of your own stupidity, you’re unlikely to change. In a follow-up study, “Why the Unskilled are Unaware: Further Explorations of (Absent) Self-insight Among the Incompetent “(2008) they found that people who performed badly in testing did not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve. People who performed well though, did learn from feedback they were given on how to improve.

Though I enjoyed reading about it, relishing, finally, an explanation for that person in my life, it does start one down a rabbit hole of introspection. Basically, any time I’m not doubting myself could be a time when I’m being stupid.

On the other hand, all those times where I do doubt my own abilities, like when I wonder whether I should keep pursuing a career in writing because maybe I’m really crap at it and it’s only my friends telling me they like my writing to be nice, maybe I’m actually doing okay. It’s somewhat reassuring, but endless self-doubt is time consuming, as well as boring for other people. It can also stop you from doing the things you need to do, like marketing.

Then I though about relationships and whether the Dunning-Kruger effect could apply to emotional intelligence too. To give some context as to why I might wonder this, up until my late thirties, I thought I was rock solid and had escaped a not ideal childhood almost totally unscathed. It’s only been lately that I’ve been recognising that I have issues I’ve been oblivious to for years. As an example, I have trouble identifying my emotions. I have a few go-to responses for almost every situation, and sometimes they aren’t the most sensible. For instance, if someone does something that I find hurtful, I shut down completely. I don’t talk and I don’t explain, I just disappear. If I don’t see the person, I don’t have to think about what happened. It’s like an emotional magic show where I make the thing that wounded me vanish like it never happened. Which is stupid, obviously. It isn’t a rational response, and doesn’t help the situation, at all. I know this, so now I have to try to change this response, which isn’t easy.

But, now that I know that I’m emotionally stupid, does that mean that I’m not?

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Is Real Necessarily Better than Fake?

I was looking at one of those home sale websites (actually several, but that’s a separate issue) that fill up my inbox. Generally I ignore them, but we’re moving house so I’m all reinvigorated housefrau, hell bent on having a spotless & flawlessly decorated trophy house, at least until we’ve actually moved, then I revert to my usual token surface dusting slackness. Along with the usual handwoven rugs and ugly bedding sets, there was, on both sites I visited, sales on bogus plants.

They seem like a great idea – no watering or sudden death and they always look the same. No drooping gerberas to mess with the still going strong roses. On a side note, why can’t florists time it so everything goes south at around the same time? At least then I wouldn’t feel bad about chucking the lot. Instead I have to deal with some extra guilt in throwing away still living flowers (who might somehow be aware they’ve been thrown in with the lawn clippings) or spend time every day playing God in deciding on the fate of individual flowers. “You’re dead. You’re close enough,” I think, arbitrarily plucking them from the life sustaining water.

thMDATHANJIf I had fake flowers, I wouldn’t have to deal with this. I have enough guilt in my life with the kids, the dog, the state of the house, the state of my career, etc. It is an extension of the Christmas tree dilemma – which I solved years ago by getting a fake tree. The kids help assemble it and it’s become a nice tradition. It also means that I don’t have to deal with the remorse from killing a tree, watching in slowly droop, turn brown and die in the hot Australian summer, which is not the best time for pine trees. It doesn’t feel part of the Christmas spirit to watch the centrepiece of your celebration die. Sure a fake tree doesn’t smell as good, but I think the whole non-death thing far outweighs the cons.

Where am I going with this? Fake flowers are on par with fake people. It might seem a stretch, but bear with me. There’s been a lot of attention on Kim Kardashian and the nudes and whether or not the photo is recent and how all those people taking selfies are essentially faking it because it takes a hundred to get a good one and lots of time and effort went into taking a photo that looks like it was effortless and no one’s life is like it is on Facebook, Instagram, etc. I get that – my Instagram looks like I’m constantly writing, when instead I’m mostly wandering aimlessly around the house or looking at stock photos pretending I’m creating teasers for books I haven’t finished writing yet.

A fake plant might create the illusion at first glance that you are a whizz with plants, much like getting botox will make you, on superficial level, look 10 years younger (but then you move or talk and the illusion is broken). And that’s okay. The thing with fake plants and fake lives is that if everyone is only looking on a superficial level, then everyone can look great. And there is something really pleasant about that. Sometimes you don’t want to see the lines and effort and dust. You might need a break from all the reality to recharge mentally. It doesn’t mean that you want to only look at the surface all the time and if you care to look, it’s pretty obvious that most of the things we are seeing are not real.

So instead of blaming the person who’s putting a synthetic version of themselves out there and judging them harshly, maybe we should give them a break. Maybe their plants keep dying and they need a fake orchid in a pot plant with fake moss or the life equivalent of it. Not everyone is good with plants and houses and kids and work, all at the same time.

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Losing the plot

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When books are reduced to their most basic “A” leads to “B” leads to “C”, there are only a few unique plotlines. Buyers in the romance sector are mostly women in the first world, so there are even fewer applicable plotlines and you’re pitching to a relatively tolerant society. Now you can’t just have people meeting and getting on famously like they do in real life, because that’s a very short and boring book. Accordingly, you need to cause conflict. The question is, what? There needs to be an inherent or created incompatibility between the main characters to create tension. Their drives or desires need to be at odds, but at the same time surmountable, because there needs to be a happily ever after at the end.

So what could possibly hold two people apart in a reality based contemporary romance novel, without being too manufactured or done to death? No longer can you just use the Romeo & Juliet excuse of “the families don’t like each other” because that’s not how it works for most people in modern societies. Many people couldn’t pick their cousins out of a line up, let alone generate a deep enough family loyalty that goes beyond their immediate relatives to prevent them from doing anything. Certainly not enough to stop them getting their freak on at the club on a Saturday night.

I had a conversation about this with the always delightful Jennifer Lane, who has a book coming out where the protagonists are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Politics used to be one of those things that you could never talk about in polite company in case you started an argument, but that no longer seems to hold. Politicians don’t have the glamour that they used to have back in the 50’s and 60’s, when they seemed to have almost rock star status. The media’s attitude to them and intrusion into all facets of their lives has taken away any mystery. We know they are all just people with regular people problems and their job seems to have a whole lot of drudgery attached, which is all very unromantic. And maybe it’s just me not really caring too much about politics, but to be honest I don’t really mind what my partner’s political beliefs are as long as I never have to attend another political fundraiser (dear God, those things are as relentlessly boring as a primary school talent show and the wine is usually crap).

Religion? This one’s a tougher cookie and most romance writers won’t touch it with a hundred foot stylus. With this one there is too much conflict and the real potential to offend. When your main aim is entertainment, the last thing you want to deal with is death threats.

Race? Society is generally too tolerant for that to be a significant enough issue to keep people apart. What would once have been scandalous is now commonplace and not even remarked upon. Creating conflict around this would be hard without sounding like a bigot.

Status? Done to death. Cinderella and all those Billionaire books (seriously? Has anyone checked out the photos of actual billionaires before they write these? There are only 23 of them in the world under 30 and they look like Mark Zuckerberg not Robert Pattinson).

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So where am I going with this? Nowhere to be precise. I struggle to create realistic conflict without alienating readers (my second book about an unfaithful wife received very mixed reactions) so I have no answers. The market wants what it wants, which is good looking billionaire alpha males (who don’t seem to work much) seducing impoverished virgins. Given the restrictions on what you can write (check out the list of rules on a lot of the publishers’ websites if you don’t believe me) it’s no wonder many novels sound the same and the market is saturated. Novels like Fifty Shades are great because the conflict was new even though the characters themselves were clichéd. Although those novels were heavily criticised, the fact that they broke out of the Romance novel box should be acknowledged.

I’ve nearly finished my third book, which like my first is paranormal. I’m often asked why I write books with supernatural elements, and this is the reason. Aliens, vampires and dystopian stories appeal to a lot of writers as new conflicts can be created because the rules of reality don’t apply. When you spend around a year writing about something, you need to make it interesting and internally coherent for yourself or the delete button starts singing its seductive siren song.

 

Minions Required

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Fuck me, I need a drink. And a minion. Maybe a host of minions (is that the collective noun? No idea but I’m going to go with it.) If I had a host of minions, there’d be one just to get me a drink and another look up the collective nouns for things. The rest would be hard at work, doing all the shit that I either don’t have time for or the necessary fucks to give one away willy-nilly. I might even dedicate one to swearing for me, as it’s unladylike and my mother always thought it important that I be a lady, not that I think that’s been overly successful.

I like writing. I enjoy it and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. What I am quickly coming to not enjoy so much is the other stuff that you have to do. I’m sure it’s been raised by other people, but if you’re responding to facebook and twitter constantly, when exactly are you supposed to write? What about joining groups? Start up a conversation, with witting sayings inserted in appropriate places, until everyone is madly in love with your writing style and will instantly download your book. Excellent strategy, except everyone else is doing that too and once everyone does it, the forums quickly becoming extraordinarily boring with everyone trying to market to each other. There really is nothing more desperate that writers trying to get other writers to buy their stuff.

Host an event! Invite people to attend and they will invite their friends and soon you’ll be famous! Another excellent strategy except I have no idea how to do that. The only parties I’ve held successfully have involved darkened rooms and lots of alcohol. How can I be witty and exciting when, being on the other side of the world, it’s the early hours of the morning and I can’t see anyone’s face? Hmmm… actually maybe that does have some possibilities. If no one knows what I look like, I can be Batman!

Rant over, I do need to knuckle down and listen to my lovely PR person, who is only trying to help. The market is saturated at the moment, so I’m given to understand, and it’s hard to stand out. And dressing like Batman really won’t be enough. Damn it!

 

Freedom’s Illusion

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As a parent, I hear a lot of “When I’m 18/38/45, I’m going to … and you’re not going to be able to stop me.” Though I’m explained it many times as best I could the fact that when they’re an adult, I wont be telling them what to do and that its entirely possible when they get to 38/45 (but hopefully not 18) they will have children of their own that they will be stopping from having a slushy for breakfast or sliding down the stairs on a cardboard box using their brother as an airbag.

As a writer, I look like I have a lot of freedom as I spend most of my time in coffee shops. Not just because they bring me caffeine and tasty treats, but also I find it a good place to get writing done as I don’t have internet access or a host of other procrastination opportunities. I go to places where I won’t run into anyone I know and start to chat and therefore if I’m not writing, I’ve got nothing else to do but stare at a wall (which I also do a lot of regardless). To an outsider, this looks ideal and for the most part its a pretty great job. I get paid to do something I genuinely enjoy, which is not something I can say about any other job I’ve had. Given I was doing it for years with no income being generated, that’s pretty telling. There’s no other job I would have done for free. But it’s not always fun. It can be frustrating when I know what I want to say, but can’t get it to read the way I want it to and lets not even talk about the excruciating boredom of the endless editing that is required to polish a book before anyone can see it. Like any job though, it has to be done. What freedom I have lies in the when, not the if.

This is the case for most things as an adult. Sure you get more say in how your life runs, but there are a lot of obligations. Unpleasant things that you have to do. You can put them off as long as you like, but when no one else is going to clean out the fish tank or the kitty litter, there’s only so long you can put it off before it moves to a whole new level of gross. Grocery shopping needs to be done, as does the laundry. These are all only a matter of time and as soon as you finishing doing it, the clock starts ticking on when you’ll have to do it again.

I know people who pay other people to do a lot of life’s less pleasant tasks, though there is usually a trade off somewhere. Even friends with more money than they know quite what to do with still have obligations. If they earned the money themselves, they’ve usually got a full-on job that takes up all their spare time and energy. If they’ve got it from family or from marrying it, they are usually beholden to the person who is providing that money and seem to be on call whenever that person requires them and have to adjust their lives to suit someone else’s whim.

Is there really any freedom beyond the superficial? Ironically, children who appear to have the least amount of control actually have the most freedom. They can wear a pink tutu with purple spotted leggings and no one will judge them. They can skip down the street singing the national anthem backwards and no one will have them committed. Still, I have no desire to go back to being a child and not just because my childhood wasn’t that great. Life is in the details and I decide the when and the where, even if not always the what. As the ever quotable Meatloaf said, “two out of three ain’t bad”.

Meh – a fashion moment

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Last week the world passed me by in a blur. It was one of those weeks where I was so busy with one area of my life that I did the bare minimum to keep everything else functioning. I’m helping out a friend with her business while she’s away on holidays and given that I have only a fraction of the necessary knowledge, was flying by the seat of my pants on the verge of panic most of the week. The phone ringing sent an icicle of dread to skewer my innards, not knowing if I was going to look like a complete moron when someone asked me a question. Fortunately, many of the phone calls were marketers of some description and I was probably the only person they had called that day who was actually happy it was them on the other end. Not that I didn’t hang up, but hopefully they sensed my joy.

One of the moments that stood out in the fog of the rest of the week happened as I was walking past Hermes. Normally I glance at the windows and like your average woman, move on. I barely spared a moment to consider the likelihood of ever purchasing an item from the store. Sure I’d love a Kelly bag, but realistically, I’m unlikely to ever think that $25,000 for an entry level bag is a justifiable expense. On this day though, out of a side door came a swirl of models, dressed head to toe in garments that I could barely fathom the price of. The first impression I had was that they were all teeny tiny people, though strangely enough very tall, wearing various shades of caramel. Their skinny legged pants that fit without a hint of stretchiness skimmed their fragile looking ankles, at length that very few people can carry off without looking like an awkward teenager who suddenly grew. Their heels were so high, anyone but a professional would be kissing the ground like the pope. They swept out one door, walked two steps then flowed in a line through another door which was blocked to the public by a security guard. It was a mysterious manoeuvre that I will never know the purpose of, and part of me is insanely curious as to why it happened. What was the purpose of going in and out of the same building through a door mere steps away?

I was left with the impression of beautifully made clothes in lovely fabrics, worn by someone who was shaped completely differently to me and frankly, mostly everyone. I thought about it, and even if I had the money to spend on these clothes, the problem is that they wouldn’t suit me even though I’m fairly averagely sized. Fashion is something that isn’t made for most of us. If I took the time, I’m sure I could understand what makes one design different to another and where the inspiration for particular pieces came from. But like learning the workings of an internal combustion engine, I have the mental capacity for it, but not the interest. A friend of mine who is obsessed with fashion, says that it makes the world a more beautiful place. I’m all for that, but I really don’t think that’s where most designers are going. It seems to me that by making clothes for and advertising clothes on people who bear only a passing resemblance to everyone else, you are really only interested in beautifying a very small section of the world. There is a reason for flowers to be colourful and a point to the stunningly beautiful wings of a butterfly, but the purpose of high end, ridiculously expensive fashion still eludes me.

Looking Crap

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Why is it, when you are looking crap, that you always run into someone you don’t know very well? Strangers don’t care and if you saw someone you are friends with, you could explain, have a bit of a laugh, and then move on, secure in the knowledge that they knew this wasn’t how you normally looked. But it’s never the last group of people, it’s always the first, which comprise (in order of descending levels of horror): The last person who dumped you, your old boss or former colleagues, any previous exes, your exes’ friends and people from school you never wanted to see again.

I’ve just been away skiing for a week and last night was looking definitely worse for wear. I’d been out in the sun and wind and drunk too much wine in a superheated lodge so resembled one of those dehydrated chips you find periodically under the couch cushions. Two days of driving failed to add any to my level of moisture. I’d also forgotten to take my tweezers so after nine days, my militant and well organised eyebrows were staging a successful coup to take over my face. To compound the problem, we’d stayed at a friend’s working sheep farm on the way home. As they are on tank water, we were all conscious about water conservation so didn’t shower which might possibly have led me to forgetting to brush my hair too. We then went out into the paddocks on the back of a ute and “helped” (I use that in the loosest sense) with the lambing. A smoky bonfire lunch of charcoaled sausages later and the overall package of utter degeneration was complete, from my muddy boots to my birds’ nest hair.

Stopping for takeaway sushi on the way home seemed a great idea at the time. Our local Japanese is quite nice and knowing the menu, I could order from the car and we could just grab it on the way home. Unfortunately, the snatch-and-go didn’t go quite to plan. The food wasn’t quite ready, so I had to wait, antsy as all hell, given my current state and wishing I had been driving the final leg so spared the indignity of appearing in public at all. And of course, while standing there trapped, the door opens and in walks a well-dressed couple. Thinking they looked familiar, I glanced at them for slightly too long and was then forced to acknowledge the presence of my former boss. He gave me a solid once up and down followed by a condescending smile. Given our working relationship had ended on not a great note, the judgement was mortifying. Clearly, I had “let myself go” after having children, spectacularly so. Saying something in these situations can only make it worse, so I tried the next option of just brazening it out and pretending everything was fine and I was aiming to look homeless – its the latest hipster look!

As I spent a bit of time today doing some grooming, I assured myself that I didn’t care and that no one probably even remembers who I am, should chat at the water cooler happen to come around to former workers they’d recently bumped into. Unlike school, at least there are no reunions for former workplaces. Not that I care that he saw me like that. No, really I don’t. Promise. I’m just going to wear a paper bag with eye holes cut out from now on, unless I’m coming straight from the hairdressers.